"Fixing" Women

by Julie Graber | on 18 Jun 2014

They are messages that play well with women - believe in yourself, speak up, don’t take it personally. Use strong words to describe yourself - smart, intelligent, innovative, not loyal & reliable. Don’t be afraid to take a risk - learn from failure. Don’t start every sentence with I’m sorry. Ask for that raise.

I’m as guilty as the next person on a panel to echo these recommendations. But in a discussion on developing authentic leadership, they don’t ring true. And in spite of comments to the contrary, you can’t suggest that women adopt these behaviors and at the same time claim that you’re not suggesting that we “fix” women.

There’s a plethora of research that documents the positive impact women can have on the performance of a team or organization. But the only way we will reap the benefits of having women at the table is if women can be their authentic selves. And we won’t reap the benefits if organizations can’t learn to accommodate those differences in behaviors instead of continuing to only reward the behaviors we socialize in men. Is it any wonder that it is the men that get ahead.

  • Women don’t necessarily speak up, we expect you to be able to recognize that exceptional performance isn’t necessarily a function of hours in the office or our willingness to talk about what we’ve done. We’re busy getting the job done, and you should be noticing.

  • We are generally more risk-averse - and that’s a good thing. I am convinced that the difference is that women are socialized to think in terms of responsibility vs. risk. When we evaluate something that seems risky, we’re asking ourselves if it’s a situation for which we are willing accept responsibility for the consequences. I don’t think the last economic crisis, with subprime loans and derivative investing, would have been as severe if the players involved had thought about the responsibility as well as the risk.

  • For a variety of reasons, women’s self-confidence takes a nosedive about the time we hit puberty. The reasons are complex, and I’m all for finding ways to turn that trend line around. But adopting the often overconfident behavior of men that gets noticed sometimes has negative - even tragic - consequences. No one starts a war that they are confident they will lose.

There is nothing magical any of those behaviors described above - they are just the behaviors organizations have chosen to reward. And organizations chose to reward these behaviors when men were the only players. They’re based more on tradition than any documentation that confirms that these behaviors lead to organizational success.

So while we can counsel young women to speak up, negotiate their pay, ask for the next assignment - perhaps to the point that their level of self-confidence is actually more comparable to their level of competence - we need to turn around and ask what should the organization be doing to accommodate and reward a diversity of behaviors - a diversity that research does show contributes to positive organizational performance and growth.